4/21/2022 | By Kari Smith

Writer Kari Smith tells us about becoming a puppy raiser for Canine Companions, a nonprofit providing service dogs to people with disabilities. She describes the process of becoming a puppy raiser for those interested in participating and talks to a couple who has raised several companion animals.

Life is a series of seasons, some more difficult and some more enjoyable. If we are fortunate, that laid-back season of life comes when we have the ability, time, and resources to give back in ways that can be life-changing for others. At some point while doing such fulfilling work, we may begin to wonder who we helped more – those whom we strived to serve, or inadvertently in the process, ourselves.

This was the case for Thomas J. Newton, DVM and his wife, Jennifer. As his retirement years grew closer, the equine vet and his wife, who had for decades run his vet practice, breeding operation, and boarding facility, looked into becoming a puppy raiser for Canine Companions, an organization that provides assistance dogs at no cost to those with disabilities. Their Service Dogs assist adults with physical disabilities by performing daily tasks. Specially trained Hearing Dogs alert the deaf and hard of hearing to important sounds. Skilled Companion dogs enhance independence for children and adults with physical, cognitive, and developmental disabilities, and their crowd-favorite Facility Dogs work in visitation, education, or healthcare settings such as courtrooms, skilled nursing facilities, and correctional centers.

These highly trained dogs all need exposure to widely varied real-world experiences, and the organization depends on volunteer puppy raisers for part of that process. At around 8 weeks old, puppies are handed over to their caregivers. Until around age 18-20 months, they are integrated into every facet of the life of “their human.” Eventually, the puppy goes everywhere his raiser does, wearing a cape identifying him as a service dog in training.

Tom tells me that the most common reaction from the public to these precious pups is either “Can I pet your dog?” or “I know I shouldn’t pet your dog …” These moments are not only a great way for puppies in training to learn how to correctly interact with people, but also for a puppy raiser to educate a captive audience on how to correctly regard a service dog once they are “on the job.”

I’m interested. But I don’t know how to train a dog!

Golden lab puppy in the grass, being trained to be a service dog. A look at becoming a puppy raiser with Canine Companions, which provides service dogs to people with disabilities, with firsthand advice.

If you are interested in becoming a puppy raiser but don’t have any formal canine training, no worries! Prior knowledge of dog training is not a prerequisite to becoming a puppy raiser, and ongoing support is offered all along the way. At 6 to 9 months in, advanced training classes begin. Some of the places Tom and Jennifer take their pups for training are home improvement stores, nurseries and garden centers, high schools, and fire stations. These are great opportunities for puppy raisers to interact socially and build relationships with fellow puppy raisers.

Given that a dog at graduation is considered to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, the application process is extensive, including applications, interviews, and a lengthy orientation. Puppy raisers come from all walks of life. Having kids, grandkids, or other dogs (not puppies) in the home does not disqualify you from being a raiser – in fact, it could provide your pup with valuable exposure to these experiences. You will be responsible for working with the organization to track your pup’s progress, attending training classes, and teaching basic commands.

Does it cost money to be a puppy raiser?

Puppy raisers are responsible for basic vet bills, food recommended by the organization, and any training or classes. You would also be required to return the puppy to its regional training center at turn-in time.

Would I make a good puppy raiser?

Someone considering becoming a puppy raiser should attend a class as an observer: check out the process, talk to other raisers or volunteers, and find out if this is a good fit into your daily life. Tom shares with me that this community is very supportive, and other folks are happy to share their experiences with others.

Related: Do I qualify to have a service dog?

How could you give up your dog?

The second most popular question that Tom and Jennifer hear is “How could you give up a dog that you have loved and trained for over a year?” Tom tells me the simple answer: “Know from the beginning that the dog is not yours.” Although it is impossible for raisers not to fall in love with these loveable animals, it is important to remember that you are part of providing an opportunity for independence for someone in need. That pup can go on to enable someone to overcome disabilities. How inspiring is that?!

What is the most rewarding thing about being a puppy raiser?

“On a daily basis, you have these incredible creatures in your life, and that makes you feel good,” Tom tells me. “But the community that comes with it is what you don’t expect.” In fact, not only does Tom keep up with his puppies and “their humans” through social media, he has created lifelong friendships and frequently travels – often in conjunction with other Canine Companion events – to visit with the puppies he raised and the precious people whom they now serve. And puppy raising wasn’t a one-time experience for the Newtons. Their pups Leland, Eaton, Valor, Lattice, Ganache, Theo, and Damir never leave Tom and Jennifer as “empty nesters” for long, as the graduation of each dog has brought about another new puppy to raise.

For more information on how becoming a puppy raiser, visit and click on Get Involved. You’ll find plenty of ways to help, from fund raising to puppy raising to flying puppies to their new homes.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith